Worth a Shot: Johnny Giavotella and Learning From History


In 2008, Kila Ka’aihue could do little wrong.  In 91 games in Double A, he ripped 26 homers and put up a 1.086 OPS and earned a promotion to Omaha where he continued the dominance, hitting another 11 homers.  He finished the year with a cumulative 37 homers and a slash line of .314/.456/.628/1.084 in the minors.

It seemed that he was ready for a shot at the big leagues, and as a September callup, he saw 24 plate appearances and hit his first major league home run.

With that season in the books, one would expect he’d be favored to start 2009 on the big league roster.  And yet, that’s not what happened.  The Royals traded Leo Nunez to the Marlins for what turned out to be one feeble season of Mike Jacobs.

Kila spent the entire year in Triple A, never getting a shot to supplant Jacobs.

By the time Kila did get a shot to be a full-time player, he’d spent a season and a half in the minors after making his major league debut.  The Royals called him up last May but he mostly sat on the bench.  Finally, going into 2011, he was the clear everyday first baseman coming out of spring training.

By now we know that he’s not the most capable hitter to ever put on a Royals uniform.  Despite the patience and power, both in abundance, Kila failed as pitchers exploited his weaknesses and left-handed pitchers made him look silly.  The Royals called up Eric Hosmer and sent Kila back down and it’s very unlikely he suits up as a Royal ever again.

Maybe it was destiny, and had Kila gotten his shot in 2009, the same weaknesses would have been discovered and he’d have the same struggles at the highest level.  In hindsight, his performance may suggest that the Royals were right to be skeptical of his 2008 season.  It may also suggest that they wasted two years of Ka’aihue’s career.

Going into 2009, Ka’aihue was 25 years old.  Had he struggled in Kansas City, he could have went to Omaha and worked it out and had a chance to open 2010 as the everyday first baseman.  The Royals may have had opportunity to trade him to some team who was willing to overlook any struggles and would pay for his positive attributes – a keen eye at the plate, and the ability to crush mistakes.  Players like Jack Cust have carved out a decent living relying on those two attributes and they fill a role in the right lineup.

Instead, the Royals now have a 27-year-old career minor leaguer who’s untradeable unless he’s a throw in as part of a larger deal.

I see Kila’s path as a cautionary tale.

The Royals have a much-celebrated farm system and despite struggles by a few of the top names, most of the talent that earned such preseason recognition is performing respectably.

One player in particular is demonstrating that he’s ready to make the jump.  He’s hitting with such consistency that a 1-4 day feels like a disappointment.

Johnny Giavotella is ready, and the Royals seem content to let him wait.  And wait.

It’s not clear to me what else Giavotella needs to do to show Dayton Moore it’s time.  In all of professional baseball, Gio’s 141 hits ranks as the second most.  Think about that.  Every franchise has four full season affiliates of roughly 12 hitters each.  By my math, that’s about 1800 hitters.  Giavotella has outhit all but one of them.

Meanwhile, Chris Getz is putting up a “mistake-free” 72 OPS+ this year.  He has 40 career extra base hits.  For all the grief Billy Butler gets, Getz seems to get a free pass from a segment of Royals fans.  He’s averaged an extra base hit once every 50 plate appearances.  He’s in Jason Kendall territory in terms of futility.

Yet he plays every day.

Many may cite defense as a reason, and sure, Giavotella has never been confused for a potential Gold Glove second baseman.  Then again, neither has Getz.

For what it’s worth, Giavotella has improved as he’s come up the ranks.  He’s a downgrade from Getz with the glove, but it’s not by much.  How many times have you seen Getz miss a ball to his left?  It seems like it’s once a game.  When you combine limited range and a Punch and Judy act at the plate, you’re looking at a player who’s very easily replaced.

And Getz should be replaced.  He’ll turn 28 years old in a month and isn’t a part of the future of the franchise.  The Royals are 17 games under .500.  The playoffs are not in this team’s future.

There is nothing to lose here.

True, Giavotella may end up struggling this year, but he would have two months to get used to the big leagues and build on his success this year.  He’s outclassed the Pacific Coast League to this point.

Maybe he won’t field better than Getz, but I’d rather have somebody at second base who can make up for his defensive shortcomings in some way.

At the start of the year, I’m sure the Royals felt that Kila Ka’aihue was going to provide left-handed power in the middle of the lineup.  Obviously, it didn’t turn out that way.  Thankfully (I guess), expectations of the playoffs weren’t realistic and it didn’t have an impact on what the final standings will turn out to be.

Next year, the Royals have an outside chance of contending, or at least making a lot of noise in the AL Central.  If the Royals spend all of 2011 with Chris Getz  at second base and let Giavotella rot in Omaha (when he’s absolutely ready), any struggles he may have next year in adjusting to the big leagues could have actual repercussions. Kila hacking at curves in the dirt might be the difference between the Royals finishing fifth instead of fourth.  It stinks but it’s not a disaster.

Two months in the big leagues could be invaluable to Giavotella.  He’s hitting at a high level and many scouts agree that if he can be relied on for anything, it’s going to be a solid bat for the position.  But just in case he debuts and goes 1-40 to start his career, shouldn’t the Royals see that now, rather than later when it may mean more to the standings?

I’d even concede that Getz, as a pinch running or utility player, could still have moderate value for the Royals this year.  He’s always been a strong basestealer.  Alcides Escobar rarely needs a day off, but if he took a couple of innings off here or there, it limits the negative impact of Getz’s average-at-best range if he were to play shortstop.

If, by the end of 2011, Getz has more plate appearances from this point until the end of the year than Giavotella, the Royals will have made a mistake.

Giavotella deserves his shot.